All-day singings & conventions

Golden Gate All-Day Singing

The eighth annual Golden Gate All-day Singing took place at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House in San Francisco today from 9:30 to 3:30. After a somewhat slow start, I felt it turned into a very strong singing. Admittedly, I was out of the room much of the time working the registration table, and I was recovering from bronchitis which limited the amount of time I could sing. Nevertheless, when I was in the room, the singing sounded very strong to me.

There were a few moments that stand out in my memory:

One of the greatest pleasures for me at an all-day singing or convention is the chance to sit next to some really good singers. Today at the Golden Gate singing, I got to sing next to quite a few good basses. At one point I wound up sitting next to Doug, whom I had never met before, while Phillip was leading no. 268 David’s Lamentation, and it turned into one of those situations where you each spur the other on to sing better than you would normally. We were also very loud, and I felt sorry for Jerry who was sitting right in front of us.

When Jackson was called, he chose to lead no. 400 Struggle On. He led at a very stately tempo, and at first I thought he was taking it too slowly. But it turned out to be exactly right for the mood of the class at that moment, and it also gave time for the harmonies and the meaning of the words to really sink in. I wound up thinking about that tune in a whole new way.

I don’t much like leading songs at conventions and all-day singings because it’s too loud for me standing in the center of the hollow square. But Rebecca needed someone to lead towards the end of the closing session, along about three o’clock. It should have been far too late to lead an anthem; nevertheless, I decided to go against convention and lead no. 236 Easter Anthem, because we had been singing it regularly in the Berkeley practice singing. The fifty or so people who were left by that time gave a rousing, tuneful rendition of the anthem. Sometimes going against conventions works out.

And there was the moment when I was sitting on the front bench of the bass section: I looked up as the leader brought us in on a fuguing tune. The leader had an unusual facial expression — eyes rolled slightly upward, lids slightly lowered, cheeks slack, head tilted slightly back — it was subtle, but I thought I recognized it as the expression that comes at peak experiences, such as moments of religious ecstasy.

Updated 24 April.

Other events

Singing school in Berkeley with Cassie Allen

Today Bay Area Sacred Harp sponsored a singing school led by singing master Cassie Allen, a fifth generation Sacred Harp singer originally from Alabama. 61 people attended all or part of the singing school, which was held in All Saints Chapel in Berkeley, our usual Monday evening singing space. And although I was working the registration table for much of the class, I was able to hear almost everything from where I sat.

At the beginning of the singing school, Cassie Allen gave an overview of the history of Sacred Harp singing, from its roots in Colonial New England, through the development of four-shape notes and the publication of the first tune book titled The Scared Harp, right up to the present day. She emphasized that this is a living tradition of singing. She also reminded the class that this is a form of sacred song, and the religious aspect is very important to many traditional singers (as is true for some of us who are not traditional singers).

Then she gave discussed and demonstrated some of the core material in the “Rudiments of Music” section of The Sacred Harp, including: note shape and pitches; major and minor scales; accenting the first and third beats; and the modes of time. She spent a good amount of time demonstrating how to lead all the different time signatures.

The people in the class were of many different ability levels, from those who have been singing for decades, to those who started singing months or weeks ago. I was impressed that Cassie Allen was able to keep the interest of the long-time singers, while not leaving the brand-new singers in the dust.

Talking with some brand-new singers after the singing school, I also realized that three hours is not nearly enough time to cover all the material that a new singer needs to know in order to feel truly confident. A week-long singing school like Camp Fasola is an obvious way for new singers to get an intensive introduction to the rudiments, but not everyone can travel to Alabama for a week of singing. Here in the Bay Area, we have a Learner’s Group that meets for a half an hour every month, and we sponsor a singing school about once a year, but it takes us perhaps two years to provide as much formal instruction as in a week as Camp Fasola. Not that I’m advocating for more singing schools in the Bay Area; we don’t have enough volunteers to provide much more in the way of formal instruction. But it is worth remembering that any time we can offer a singing school, we should do so.

Singing at home

A short singing for me

I’m getting over an upper respiratory infection that’s been going around the Bay area; I’m no longer contagious, but I only lasted 40 minutes at tonight’s singing. We had a mere 25 singers — after having more than thirty singers for the past size weeks, 25 seems like a small group — 8 tenors, 3 trebles, 6 altos, and 8 basses. The basses sounded fantastic; not only did we have several of our more experienced basses tonight, the newer basses have begun to sound good. I arrived somewhat late, so I got to sit on the back bench, which is where I prefer to be, surrounded by a big bass sound. However, I did not get to sit at the alto end of the bass bench, which was too bad because the altos sounded particularly good this evening.

When my turn to lead came around, I chose no. 291 Majesty, by William Billings. I led it at a fairly stately pace, at about sixty half notes per minute; I’ve come to prefer Billings sung at this slower pace, which is more in line with the performance practice he calls for in the introductions to his tunebooks. The Berkeley singing prefers to sing faster, and the class kept pushing my tempo, which was fine with me; it’s better to feel that a tune is accelerating slightly, than to feel that a tune is dragging. Alas, while I was in the hollow square I noticed that some of our intonation issues have returned, and I have to admit it was nice returning to the back bench of the bass section where the intonation was somewhat more stable.

Even though the remains of the upper respiratory infection gave me a couple of low bass notes I don’t usually have, by the time the break rolled around I was done for the evening.

Singing at home

Forty once again

Once again this evening, we had 40 singers. We were missing a number of our regular singers, but we had some visitors: the cast of a production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” came to sing with us, as they are going to include some shape note singing in their performance. I don’t quite understand how shape note singing fits in with “The Crucible” — the play is about the Salem with trials, and shape note singing would be an anachronism — nevertheless it was good to have the cast sing with us; and some of them were really excellent singers.

At the end of the evening’s singing, Alex, Jackson, and I were standing around after replacing the pews to their original places. We all agreed that it had been a really good singing. I’d describe it as loud, exuberant, and generally tuneful (and perhaps this means we have finally overcome the intonation problems we’ve been having). I came away with renewed energy, and with my ears ringing.

Singing at home

Easter singing

The regular second Sunday Palo Alto singing fell on Easter this year. Even though some of our regular singers had Easter commitments, ten of us showed up to sing: two tenors, one treble, three altos, and four basses. Yet again, there were more men than women: seven men to three women (the three women were all altos this time). While it is nice to have the treble and tenor parts sung in two octaves, I have to say that I also like the sound with just men singing treble and tenor; the harmonies aren’t as rich, but I like the overall lower pitch, and the way the treble, tenor, and bass lines are close together and even crossing one another.

Since it was Easter, of course we sang no. 236, Billings’s Easter Anthem. Last month we had sung the notes and the words to the Easter Anthem, and that practice paid off this month; we gave a very nice reading of the tune. We also wound up singing several other tunes by Billings: no. 479 Chester, no. 66 Jordan, no. 291 Majesty, and no. 269 Bear Creek. It is always a pleasure to sing Billings; his are generally very singable, and very satisfying to sing.